Monday Morning Blackout News Roundup

Some articles on the possible causes and the fallout from the blackout:

Overloaded power lines in northern Ohio may be to blame, although the utility that owns and operates the lines in question thinks that their imbalances were a symptom of a larger problem:

Baird said FirstEnergy is evaluating information that shows there were “unusual electric conditions and disturbances” throughout the eastern United States beginning at noon Thursday, three hours before the Cleveland line failures and four hours before the spreading power failures. These included big shifts in voltage levels and electrical “frequency” on grids, or conditions making electric flows swing above or below the normal 60 cycles per second.

But it’s also true that FirstEnergy and other utilities knew that they operated near transmission capacity during summer peak hours:

Last year, an annual assessment of summertime power-handling capabilities of the links connecting the Midwest to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, conducted by the industry, recognized that growth in long-distance energy trading was in a fine balance with the limits of the grid.

“The results of this analysis stress the continued need for close coordination and communication among the users of the interconnected systems in order to maximize the utilization of the network without jeopardizing its reliability,” said the report, produced jointly by groups set up by the three regions’ power companies after the blackout of 1965 to cut risks of disruptions.

A power failure like this has been a long time coming [Disclosure: this article is from one of my hometown papers, and I’m also quoted in it], but it does not necessarily mean that the right response is to build more power lines.

The political fallout, regulation, and the pending energy bill proposals:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Standard Market Design proposal, which has been in the works for the past year and a half, is likely to be delayed. In addition to discussing the SMD, this article has some good background:

But since the beginning of electricity deregulation in 1992, the transactions moving power over long-distance high-voltage lines have shot up 400 percent, creating dangerous congestion at a number of bottlenecks around the country. Meanwhile investment in the nation’s 170,000-mile high-voltage grid has stalled as the electric-power industry tries to recover from huge stock market losses. Last year, less money was spent on the grid, after allowing for inflation, than in any year since the Great Depression, says the Electric Power Research Institute.

“It is very well known where there are weak links in the transmission grid,” said Elizabeth A. Moler, former FERC chairwoman and now a lobbyist for Exelon, a utility based in Chicago. “There are maps of them. The fact that these weak links persist is ridiculous.”

Every day, thousands of megawatts of power are bought and sold between regions, transforming the way in which the U.S. electrical system worked in the first half of the last century, when one company served a region as both generator and distributor of electricity.

This quote indicates just how inadequate our old regulatory model is to adapting to the dynamics of the evolving and increasingly interconnected wholesale electricity markets.

The blackout highlights political battles in Washington and between federal and state regulators [Disclosure: this article is from one of my hometown papers, and I’m also quoted in it]. President Bush calls the transmission grid “old and antiquated”, and says we need more investment in transmission, policies for which are being considered in energy bill discussions this fall.

The House energy bill proposal, HR.6

The Senate energy bill proposal, S.14, and a mind-boggling number of amendments

The blackout now means that energy will get more political attention when Congress returns in September, when they debate these two energy bill proposals. Some politicians now, finally, see electricity policy as urgent. But that does not mean that these large, omnibus energy bills are going to pass. Energy is a divisive issue politically, particularly in the Senate, because of the regional variation in interests and capabilities. I anticipate substantial revisions, and already some members, like John Dingell, have proposed splitting out electricity into a separate bill so that it doesn’t get dragged through the ANWR/oil & gas subsidy/R&D subsidy mud wrestling that has killed previous energy bills.